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Is Morocco a model for the Muslim world?

Family law reforms gave women the right to divorce. A look at the effects five years later.

The head of another activist group, Latifa Jbabdi of the Women’s Action Union, described local feminism with a term known to any American who has glanced inside a shirt constructed by her nation’s vast textile industry.

Switching mid-sentence to English, she joked, "I would say it’s 'made in Morocco.'"

Jbabdi and others say Morocco still falls short in some important areas of women’s rights. Women enjoy fewer rights of inheritance than their husband’s surviving male relatives, and there are contexts where men unfairly retain sole legal authority over their children, she said.

“We’ve seen cases of fathers who never their see their child, yet their permission is still needed before the child can get a life-saving surgery,” Jbabdi said.

The reformed family code increased the legal age of marriage to 18 from 15. But a small provision in the law allows judges to grant exceptions to the rule. Jbabdi said the loophole has created an alarming resurgence of underage marriage in Morocco’s more conservative, rural areas.

“This little window that was opened by Islamists in parliament has become a huge door,” Jbabdi said.

However, many Moroccans are concerned that the reforms have gone too far. On March 12, 2000, a coalition of Islamist groups, opposed to the proposed family laws on religious grounds, flooded the streets of Casablanca with a demonstration half a million people strong. Among the arguments Islamists employed was the notion that all the new rules would cause a spike in divorces and at the same time discourage men from matrimony.

Such thinking can still be found in unexpected places — such as the campus of Mohammad V University in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, on a recent sunny afternoon. Amri Nouria, a 23-year-old biology major, said she’s pleased that she can chose whom to marry and when.

“But the negative side is that, because of the change in the law, men are afraid of getting married,” Nouria added. “And now there are more unmarried women than married women. It has complicated things a bit.”

The Moroccan minister who oversees issues relating women and the family, Nouzha Skalli, dismissed such claims, saying the numbers don't bear them out.

The latest figures released by the Justice Ministry suggest that the number of people filing for marriage registrations actually rose about 30 percent in the four years after the code was changed, to 307,000 from 236,000. The number of divorces, according to the ministry,
has stayed relatively flat over the same period, rising to 27,900 from 26,900, or about 3 percent.

Skalli was herself a women’s rights activist before being appointed minister of social development, family and solidarity. As for the feminists who want change to come faster, Skalli counseled patience. “It’s very difficult to uproot a culture in five years,” she said. “No problem is going to be solved with the touch of a magic wand.”

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